What would happen if a flight instructor at a flight school called an FBI office today to say he had a foreign student who was asking to learn how to fly in such a way as to indicate he might be interested in a hijacking?

Would we then not only arrest the guy — as we arrested Sept. 11 suspect Zacarias Moussaoui — but also go through his computer and personal effects with whatever it took? Or would we do as we did in late August: choose to consider the suspect's possessions off limits?

There seems to be no doubt that mountains would be moved today to open that computer, to look into Moussaoui's personal effects, to find out what kind of danger he posed. So, looking back, how could we have been that blase about such a threat?

I remember trying to do stories about potential security threats, and the little interest those stories aroused, how easily they were shrugged off.

But that's you and me. We are the everyday idiots who walk through our lives not quite understanding the threats hanging over our heads like a sword of Damocles.

What about the professionals — the people whose job it is to assess threats? How were they going about finding bad people planning bad things without disturbing the basic rights of U.S. citizens. That's what we expect from them.

I don't understand how this was or is so hard. A foreign national is here doing weird stuff, and we take the position that violating the rights he would have if he were a citizen someone violates our rights?

It isn't. You and me, we're citizens. We don't have bad things in our past. We haven't been to Afghanistan. We haven't been hanging with Al Qaeda. We haven't been moping around mosques dreaming of the tenth century.

So why are the experts finding it so hard to figure out who the Moussaouis are?

We ought to pay attention to the doings of non-citizens from certain countries, especially those who are not on track to become citizens. Somebody is going to have to explain why visitors to this country have the same rights as citizens of this country. The Constitution protects all 'persons' will be the answer. But that was an interpretation from good times, unthreatening times.

Times are different now. If somebody calls about the next Moussaoui, let's just keep our priorities straight and go right into his computer and through all of his personal papers. Let's find out what's going on inside that suspicious little noggin of his, shall we?

That's My Word.

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